Preparing for life after levels

Written by: HTU | Published:

Leading figures from across education are meeting this month to agree a set of assessment principles to help schools cope when national curriculum levels are axed. Headteacher Update reports

A commission has been set-up by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) to advise schools on how they can develop new assessment systems when national curriculum levels are axed next year.

The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed in June that the current system of levels used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed when the new national curriculum comes into effect in September 2014.

Schools are now awaiting the outcomes of a DfE consultation into primary assessment and accountability arrangements which closed last month.

However, the DfE has already made it clear that levels will not be replaced and that it will not prescribe a specific approach to assessment. In June, it said it would look to work with schools, publishers and external test developers, among others, to “signpost” potential approaches.

The DfE’s consultation document, Primary Assessment and Accountability Under the New National Curriculum, states: “How schools teach their curriculum and track the progress pupils make against it will be for them to decide. Schools will be able to focus their teaching, assessment and reporting not on a set of opaque level descriptions, but on the essential knowledge that all pupils should learn. 

“There will be a clear separation between ongoing, formative assessment (wholly owned by schools) and the statutory summative assessment which the government will prescribe to provide robust external accountability and national benchmarking. Ofsted will expect to see evidence of pupils’ progress, with inspections informed by the school’s chosen pupil tracking data.”

The NAHT Commission on Assessment without Levels held its first meeting on October 21 and will have five further meetings during November. 

It is being chaired by former chief inspector Lord Stewart Sutherland and the panel is made up of 12 experts from across education (see box, below).

The commission’s discussions are also being observed by representatives from the DfE, Ofsted and exams watchdog Ofqual. 

General secretary of the NAHT, Russell Hobby, said: “National curriculum levels were not perfect but the idea that each school should create its own assessment system is extremely dubious. Do we need 22,000 wheels reinvented?

“How will anyone be able to compare like with like? To take just two examples: how well will inspectors be able to use school data to make judgements when each method of rating pupil performance varies from school to school? And how will secondary schools cope with different data from each of their primaries?”

The commission has already called for written submissions of evidence, which will be considered by the panel members as part of their discussions. The panel will also be taking oral evidence from academics, educationalists, publishers, unions and others.

The remit of the commission covers both primary and secondary education, and specifically the impact on transition processes. 

As well as agreeing the principles of good assessment practice, the panel is also aiming to “identify and highlight” examples of best practice to help schools when deciding on how to replace the use of levels.

Among its key questions, the commission is seeking to address the following: 

  • What are the purposes of assessment?
  • Who benefits from assessment?
  • What are the elements of good assessment practice?
  • Is a universal system of assessment necessary to measure pupil progress and attainment?
  • What aspects of learning should be assessed and how?
  • What forms of assessment are appropriate for use at the follow stages: early years, key stage 1, key stage 2, key stage 3, and key stage 4?
  • What should be the outcomes, learning, teaching and/or reporting of an effective assessment system?
  • What quality assurance mechanisms are needed to ensure the robustness and reliability of assessment?
  • What role should assessment play in the accountability system, including formal inspection of schools?

Lord Sutherland said: “We have a dual task ahead of us. First, to provide what help we can to teachers who are confronted with the immediate and continuing need to assess pupils’ progress, and second to take this opportunity to make an initial exploration of the broader questions of the purposes and processes of assessment.”

Mr Hobby added: “If the commission achieves (its) aims, schools should have confidence that when they invest in developing or acquiring an assessment system, it will be used and accepted by officials, recognisable to other schools and genuinely effective in supporting teaching and learning.”

The DfE has confirmed that statutory assessments (including national curriculum tests) for year 2 and year 6 in summer 2014 and 2015 will continue to be based on the existing national curriculum and will report using the current levels system. The first new national curriculum tests will take place in May 2016. 

The NAHT’s commission is still accepting written submissions. Email

Commission on Assessment without Levels

  • Lord Stewart Sutherland, former chief inspector (Commission chairman)
  • Leora Cruddas, director of policy, Association of School and College Leaders
  • Tony Draper, headteacher, Waterhall Primary School, Bletchley, and chair of NAHT’s Assessment and Accountability Group.
  • Dr John Dunford, chairman, Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors
  • Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau
  • Sam Freedman, director of research, evaluation and impact, Teach First
  • Russell Hobby, general secretary, NAHT
  • Bernadette Hunter, president, NAHT
  • Stephen Kirkpatrick, deputy headteacher, Willow Tree Primary School, Salford
  • Alison Peacock, National Leader of Education and headteacher of The Wroxham Teaching School, Hertfordshire
  • Tim Sherriff, headteacher, Westfield Community School, Wigan, and member of NAHT’s Assessment and Accountability Group.
  • Kerry Sternstein, deputy headteacher of Shaftesbury School
  • Gordon Stobart, Emeritus Professor of Education, Institute of Education, London

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